The Theodicy Odyssey image

The Theodicy Odyssey

Mike Bird, over at Euangelion, suggests that the demand for a watertight theodicy in response to the problem of evil is logically incoherent. It’s not the first time the argument has been made, but it’s a relatively brief statement of an important idea, from an increasingly influential New Testament scholar:

After the 9/11 anniversary and teaching about the doctrine of sin, I’ve been thinking about God and evil. The truth is that much Christian theology is really an attempt at theodicy (i.e., explaining the compatibility of the co-existence of an all-good and all-powerful God with evil and suffering in our world). Romans to Revelation deal with this issue in the New Testament – Christians take evil very seriously. And constructing a theodicy is an odyssey in philosophical theology as well as an existential and pastoral imperative.
However, I think it is possible, philosophically speaking, to cut down the logical problem of evil at the knees. It is possible to demonstrate that the argument from evil presupposes precisely what it intends to refute. In order to believe that “evil” exists, one needs an absolute standard by which evil is judged to be. Or else we are simply left with competing views and voices about who or what is evil. The argument from evil is only valid if we assume that evil is an objective moral entity, yet we can only have objective moral values if there is an absolute moral law and perhaps a law-giver in the first place (i.e., the moral argument for God’s existence a la C.S. Lewis and C. Stephen Evans).
In the absence of God, pushing an old lady in front of a bus is as equally meaningless as helping her walk across the street. We can pretend or decide that one is wrong, but this is no more than an opinion that has no power of value beyond the subscription of a collective will. After all, on what basis or upon what authority does one describe one deed as “good” and another deed as “evil”? In the absence of God, ethics is reduced aesthetics. To say that killing old ladies is wrong describes a certain sociological position that ascribes relative value to human life, but it is not scientifically prescriptive. As David Hume noted, you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”.
Good and evil are prescribed values, not detectable natural qualities. To say that “killing old ladies is wrong” has no more truth value than saying, “I don’t like cabbage flavored ice cream”. Killing a human being is a morally meaningless act. We can ascribe meaning to it if we wish, but this is nothing more than a language-game, a sociological construct, with no objective or scientific quality. Atheist philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to J.L. Mackie were right: atheism entails nihilism, so let’s try to make the best of it. Jeffery B. Russell comments: “The argument from evil, if it is valid, destroys the notion of all order and all cosmic principles, not just the one we call God. By destroying order and principle it renders all value judgments completely subjective … If no order or purpose exists, then all human values and aspirations are absurd, and consequently good and evil are only subjective constructs. But since evil then cannot exist objectively, it cannot be adduced against the existence of God.”

Ah, presuppositionalism. You can read the whole thing here.

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